SAUDI ARABIA: CHARTING A COMPLEX COURSE

Canberra, 11 July 2015

From the very beginning of their rule of the Saudi kingdom, the al-Saud family has embraced the principles and practices of the Wahabi ideology, an extreme and strict version of Islam. The support for the extreme variety of Wahabi teachings increased in 1979 after Ayatollah Khomeini came to power in neighbouring Iran, the primary supporter of Shia Islam. In a bid to counter the spread of Iranian influence in the region, Saudi Arabia orchestrated the formation of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) that was embraced by all the Arab monarchies. However, Wahabism has been supported and used also by the Western powers—primarily the US and UK—in three distinct initiatives, to support their own interests. First, early in the 20th century, both the US and UK supported the spread of the Wahabi ideology to wean the Arabs away from Turkish Ottoman influence, which practised a much more tolerant and open interpretation of Islam. Second, in the 1950s, Wahabism was used by the US to curb the rise of Arab nationalism led by Egypt’s President Nasser. Third, in the 1980s the US used Wahabism to oppose the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, in the process indirectly radicalising the Arab youth in the Middle-East.

The combined result of the Saudi Arabian and Western support of Wahabism, to meet their own narrow and short term goals, has been that two or even three generations of Middle-Eastern youth have grown up subscribing to a religious belief that has set aside the qualities of mercy, compassion and benevolence advocated throughout the Holy Quran. This rigid and extremely violent interpretation of the practice of the Islamic faith is the fundamental issue that throws up myriad other challenges in the Middle-East and now impacts the entire international community. It is through this lens that the actions of Saudi Arabia in the past few months must be viewed.

Saudi Arabia today faces three major challenges to its well-being: the increasing regional influence of Iran; the Islamic State (IS) making inroads into the kingdom; and a vexed relationship with the US. Of the three issues, the rise of Iran and the manifestations of its spreading influence are considered the most immediate threat to the regional leadership ambitions of Saudi Arabia. When the implications of a powerful Iran are analysed from a Saudi viewpoint, the compulsion for their direct intervention in the civil war in Yemen becomes easier to understand.

Background to the Intervention in Yemen

It is purely Saudi Arabian aid that has kept Yemen afloat for decades. The Saudis have supported the military, security apparatus, education, social services, and transportation projects—in short almost all government services are partially or fully Saudi funded, which has prevented Yemen from becoming a failed state. The Saudi aim, unlike what some sceptics believe, has not been ideological influence but a pragmatic attempt to ensure stability in Yemen to avoid state failure and thereby ensure the stability of the southern region of Saudi Arabia. The south-western Saudi Arabia was separated from Yemen and annexed by the Saudis in the 1930s and the tribes of the region are ethnically Yemeni. In terms of national security that part of Saudi Arabia is therefore the most vulnerable. The tribes in southern Saudi Arabia have not converted to Wahabi Islam and the fear in Riyadh is that they could either join with the Houthi uprising in Yemen and/or start a domestic rebellion.

Further, Saudi Arabia has for years accused Iran, rightly or wrongly, of interference in the domestic politics of Yemen and of backing the Houthi rebels. However, Iran’s influence over the Houthis is tenuous at best, although they benefit from the largess of Tehran in providing much needed arms and other resources to continue the civil war. It is not sure that the Houthis can be ordered about by Iran to fit in with a larger Iranian plan to become a Middle-East hegemon.

The Saudi-Iran rivalry goes back to the overthrow of the Shah by the Ayatollah and the establishment of a decidedly Shia theocracy. The Saudis have always supported Sunni extremism, and Iran has reinforced Shia movements. It is unfortunate for Saudi Arabia that their initiatives have backfired spectacularly, to an extent wherein their on prodigies are now threatening Saudi national security. In recent times, Iran has provided unconditional support to Iraq for the fight against the rise of the IS whereas Saudi response has been hamstrung, for a number of domestic reasons. This has led to an increase in the regional influence of Iran and resulted in the perception of a change in the balance of power in favour of Iran. This is anathema to the Saudi ruling family who claim and believe that they are the unquestioned leaders of the Middle-East.

In this situation, if Saudi Arabia wanted to retain the Arab leadership role, there was no option but to start a process to diminish Iranian influence. Theoretically being on the same side in the fight against the IS in Iraq, the military intervention in Yemen therefore became unavoidable. It was relatively easy to put together a coalition consisting of the GCC members to increase the legitimacy of the intervention, although at the initiation of the military campaign the UN Resolution had remained short of permitting military action. The subsequent UN Security Council Resolution 2216 of April 2015 demands that the Houthis retreat from all Yemeni cities that they have captured and lay down their arms to facilitate the return from exile of the ‘legitimate’ government back to Yemen. The Saudi-led coalition insists on this as a precondition for stopping the air campaign. They also want the international community to enforce the resolution, citing the 1991 expulsion of Iraq from Kuwait as an example, and also stating the Resolution 2216 provides the best chance to arrive at a long term solution to the Yemen imbroglio. However, realistically it has to be accepted that in this instance international military intervention will not take place.

The Coalition

The Saudi Arabian monarchy did not have any difficulty in convincing the Arab League, GCC countries and both the US and Turkey to join the coalition once the decision to intervene in Yemen had been made. It is not the composition of the coalition, but the nations that are not part of it that is indicative of the fault lines that have developed in the Arab world, and perhaps more importantly, in the overarching society of Islamic nations. Egypt was vociferous in its support in the beginning, even suggesting the possibility of a ground invasion, but of late has been opaque in its official statements regarding a ground assault into Yemen. However, if Saudi Arabia decides to take that route, it is highly likely that Egypt will be coerced to be part of the invading force, even if reluctantly. The fiasco of their earlier intervention in Yemen is not completely lost in the Egyptian military memory.

Turkey has also been all noise and very little substance in their support for the intervention. At the start of the air campaign the official stance was revealed in careful statements that said the government may ‘carefully consider’ providing ‘logistic support’ based on the progress of the situation. Turkey’s attitude to the intervention is political pragmatism at its best. Initially Ankara demanded that ‘Iran and terrorist groups’ withdraw from Yemen; an understandable rhetoric considering that it needs Saudi Arabian assistance to tide over its current economic trouble. Turkey’s current public debt is the highest it has been in a decade. However, it also knows that Yemen is a tough nut to crack, especially without the use of ground forces, and that Saudi Arabia is in a bit of a quandary. On Iran’s strong reaction to its comments, Turkey hurriedly back-pedalled, putting out a call for an end to the war and recommending the quest for a ‘political solution’, a very different tune to what had been played few weeks earlier.

The support from the Arab League has been varied with a majority being on-side. However Iraq opposes the intervention and Algeria has called for an end to ‘all foreign intervention’ in Yemen. The GCC is a placid and compliant organisation that normally toes the Saudi line. In this case, Oman with a shared border with Yemen has voiced concerns regarding the intervention, obviously because of worry regarding the possibility of a spill over of the chaos into its own territory.

Pakistan is the other Saudi ally that is conspicuously absent from the coalition, both in terms of military participation and also in rhetorical statements of support. The Yemen intervention is not popular with the public in Pakistan and the Parliamentary decision to stay away from the campaign reflects this. However, the decision has made the once-solid Saudi-Pakistan relationship wear thin. The Saudi Arabian support for the extremist elements functioning within Pakistan has turned public opinion against the kingdom, even though they have been Pakistan’s benefactors for decades.

The role of the US in the coalition is easy to describe but difficult to understand in terms of identifying the objectives that it hopes to achieve. The US position is uncomfortable, having taken sides in what is essentially a civil war by providing arms, logistics, and detailed intelligence and targeting support to the coalition. This stance is completely opposed to the current administration’s stated policy of keeping out of ‘turf’ wars. Even Saudi Arabia’s close allies Pakistan and Turkey have refused to be drawn into the conflict, fully understanding the difficulties in taking sides in an all-Islamic fight. In directly assisting Saudi Arabia, the US will in all likelihood create another sectarian adversary in the Houthis and possibly Iran. Although it is worried about the increasing influence of AQAP, and aware that they are not being targeted by the coalition, the US has opened arms transfer facilities to Saudi Arabia. It is apparent, from statements and interviews of senior US military and government officials, that the US does not have a clear visibility or understanding of Saudi Arabian strategic goals behind the intervention. The coercive use of air power in an all-out bombing campaign to achieve political solution to a convoluted problem has almost no chance of success. However, the US lacks the political will, and perhaps does not have the diplomatic edge anymore, to pressure Saudi Arabia to agree to a ceasefire.

Saudi Arabia has always relied on its financial power to be the centre piece of its diplomatic initiatives. This approach does not seem to be working in the current circumstances. With the progress of the nuclear negotiations with Iran, there is a high likelihood of sanctions against the country being lifted. When that happens all nations, including the GCC countries and Turkey, will want to ensure their share of the gold rush which will inevitably follow. Cash for loyalty has always had a short term life cycle.

The Air Campaign     

Considering that after more than two months of air strikes in Yemen, which has grown increasingly controversial in terms of the targeting of civilian infrastructure, the Houthis still control large parts of the country and the ‘legitimate’ government is still in exile in Saudi Arabia, the inevitable question has to be asked, ‘Was the intervention a strategic mistake?’ There is no doubt that the intervention was popular among the Saudi population in the initial phase, although the support seems to have become ambivalent as the campaign has dragged on. The air campaign has very little to show, other than the destruction of the limited infrastructure of an already poor country and the killing of around 2000 civilians in a rough estimate.

This is not the first time that air power is being used in Yemen to quell a rebellion. In earlier days both Britain and Egypt had used air power extensively in separate attempts to put down rebellions and failed miserably in the attempt. There were two common reasons for these failures. One was the mountainous terrain that provided the rebels with impervious natural cover from aerial attacks and the other, the glaring eye of the international media that negated unbridled use of firepower from the air, ensuring that the air forces consciously minimised collateral damage. The current Saudi air campaign is also affected by the same constraints and could well follow the failed imperial initiatives of the 1960s.

Although the air campaign is continuing, it seems that whatever could be achieved has been achieved, which points to the fact that a ground campaign may be necessary to return President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi and his government from exile to Sana’a as the legitimate ruler. Saudi Arabia has been training Yemeni fighters to mount a ground campaign to drive out the Houthis. However, tangible progress in this initiative will require a long lead-time and even then the chances of success are limited. Saudi Arabia will not commit its own ground forces to an invasion in what promises to become an absolute quagmire. It is increasingly apparent that the only way forward is a negotiated political settlement. Any such settlement will only hold true with the participation of Iran and the current climate of Saudi-Iranian regional rivalry precludes their arriving at an amicable settlement. In effect the air campaign has so far only created a humanitarian disaster in which the common people of Yemen are bearing the brunt of the privations.

The initial objective of the air campaign was to obtain air superiority over Yemen by degrading and neutralising the minimal air power capabilities of the Houthis, which consisted of a few MiG-29s armed with Kh-29 and Kh-31 guided missiles. This was achieved in the initial phases of the campaign and some Scud missile facilities that escaped were subsequently destroyed. The second objective was to achieve control of the strategic Bab al-Mandeb straits in the south-west coast of Yemen, which is the fourth busiest shipping bottle-neck in the world. This was also achieved through a combination of naval blockade and air action. The Saudi strategy is based on the belief that control of the seas and the air is sufficient to contain any threat to the kingdom.

The rebels control much of the territory in Yemen and it will take a protracted, large-scale ground invasion to drive them back to their initial positions in the north. Can air strikes alter the balance of power on the ground in this scenario? An honest answer would be that it is unlikely under the current circumstances. The containment strategy therefore is obviously meant to create the necessary conditions for negotiations. The current situation and the inability of the air campaign to create any further progress brings out few questions. Was the intervention meant to be a demonstration of strength for the consumption of the domestic population of Saudi Arabia? Was there a miscalculation in terms of the military support expected from the allies?

There is no doubt that the strategic aim of the intervention was to curtail and push back a burgeoning Iranian sphere of influence. However, it also provided an opportunity to demonstrate the ability of the new ruling elite—both king and his inexperienced aides—to initiate decisive action in order to stabilise their power-base within the large al-Saud family. An easy victory would have achieved that purpose admirably. It can also be surmised that the possibility of a ground invasion would have been envisaged with the assistance of both Pakistan and Turkey. The fact that the Saudi planners did not even consider a refusal from these two ‘old’ friends is evident in the way in which the broad campaign has played out. In both Pakistan and Turkey real politick triumphed over decades-old alliances. Iran is a major and powerful neighbour to both these nations and they cannot afford to antagonise an emerging power.

The Situation inside Yemen – The AQAP Gains

To put it succinctly, the situation in Yemen is such that absolute confusion reigns. The initial swift advance of the Houthi militia has run out of steam. They are now short of fuel, food and water and are reverting to a holding pattern, although their actions do not seem to be oriented towards consolidating their gains. They are now being opposed by rival factions in the south and central regions of the country. However, these factions are not united under one banner and also despise the President in exile, Mansour Hadi, as much as they despise the Houthis. Since they are fragmented they have not been able to gather the momentum or the power necessary to push the Houthis back into the northern mountains. In the meantime some of these factions have started to form unsavoury alliances with the Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which has always been a deadly fighting force.

In a generic manner there are two demons to fight in Yemen—the sectarianism that was not very obvious even a few years back, and regionalism that has been the bane of the country for decades. Even today, separatist movements in the South have not given up their demand for an independent country, 25 years after the unification in 1990. It can be argued that a bit more than two decades is a very short span of time for independence movements to be fully subdued, and therefore the separatist movement is to be expected.

The US has been mounting a UAV campaign against AQAP form few bases in Yemen for a number of years, which was one of the major factors in the AQAP being unable to gain any distinct advantage in their operations in the Arabian Peninsula. At the advance of the Houthi forces, the US contingent had to vacate the country, thereby giving the AQAP a much-needed respite. Paradoxically, the Saudi Arabian air campaign has had the unintended consequence of the AQAP being able to gather fresh momentum for their activities. Within a very short time, they have expanded the territory under their control and there is a visible improvement in their strength and a dramatic increase in their activities. The US support to the Saudi air campaign that has benefitted an adversary that they have been trying to contain for a number of years itself presents a dichotomy at the strategic level.

The increased presence and operations of the AQAP is not being countered or targeted by the Saudi-led coalition air strikes. The air campaign is focused on ensuring that Iranian assistance to the Houthi fighters is fully and completely severed. In the meantime AQAP is going from strength to strength. Again a sort of short-sightedness is visible in this military strategy. The AQAP has declared, at its inception almost a decade ago, that they consider Saudi Arabia the immediate enemy and believes that the monarchy lacks the legitimacy to rule the kingdom. The AQAP is more a threat to Saudi Arabia than to any other nation and yet the air campaign is not even tangentially targeting them. Strange is perhaps a very weak term to describe this bizarre military strategy.

The air campaign has not managed to curb the power of the Houthi militia. In 2009 Saudi Arabia had intervened in Yemen with troops on the ground to fight the same tribal caucus. The attempt failed then and the rebels could not be defeated; it is even more unlikely that the Houthis will collapse this time around if a ground invasion is attempted. Saudi Arabian military planners are very aware of the pitfalls of embarking on a ground offensive.

There are few imponderables that emerge from this confused situation. First, it is easy to believe that Iran is only involved to an extent that is necessary to ensure their own security, although the means of achieving it through support to Houthi militia is a questionable strategy. Even so, considering the strong Saudi support to Sunni-led extremism across the Middle-East, Iran’s support to minority Shia sections is perhaps understandable in an extreme sort of manner. However, if the currently on-going nuclear negotiations were to fail, Iran’s reaction to the Saudi intervention in Yemen cannot be predicted. Second, the war in Yemen is obviously aimed at winning back the cities, territories and ultimately the loyalty of the tribes, superimposed by the ever present sectarian twist. The Saudi-led coalition seems to be content for the time being with creating and ensuring a state of chaos and instability with an increase in the sectarian divide in Yemen. So far Yemen has not been divided on sectarian grounds and the air campaign is slowly driving a wedge into the sectarian homogeneity of the State. The only winner in both these cases is the AQAP.

Into the Future…

It is unclear as to who is actually winning the war. The air campaign in its current guise is ineffective and counter-productive to the promotion of a political solution. It has proved to be a poorly thought-out military adventure by the newly installed Saudi king and his inexperienced son, who is today the youngest Defence Minister in the world. It has brought about unfathomable human misery to the poorest region in the Arabian Peninsula. On the other hand, Yemen cannot conceive of a bright future without ensuring good relations with Saudi Arabia. Iranian military support to the Houthi militia will continue although an outright rebel victory is highly unlikely. The civil war has all the hallmarks of becoming a festering wound. Further, Iran will not be able to replace Saudi Arabia as the major benefactor of Yemen to create stability. In the current stand-off situation, a stable and prosperous Yemen remains a faraway chimera.

Even when analysed from all angles, a Saudi exist strategy, other than the complete withdrawal of Houthi forces, is not visible. It is possible that this entire situation has been created by the hubris of a new and unproven Saudi leadership that wanted to exhibit political and military dominance of the region. The continuing air campaign is a manifestation of its failure and the insertion of ground troops, if that happens, will be further indication of strategic failure.

It is clear that both sides want and hope for a negotiated settlement. However all political diplomatic avenues that could lead to a ceasefire and settlement requires the participation of Iran and obviously of the Houthis themselves. Even so, only a political solution can bring this sad episode to an end. If Saudi Arabia perseveres with their insistence on severing the Iranian connection and the complete withdrawal of Houthi forces, the deadlock is also likely to continue. Any continuation of the air campaign will create a failed state and the only winner will be the AQAP. The need of the hour is the rise of a statesman of vision and calibre who can not only bring the warring factions to the negotiating table and hammer out a peace deal, but also ensure that the factions honour the deal. It seems a far-fetched dream.

© [Sanu Kainikara] [2015]
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About Sanu kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Defence Analyst specialising in air power and national security. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS) Distinguished Fellow Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS)

3 Responses to “SAUDI ARABIA: CHARTING A COMPLEX COURSE”

  1. manjunath naik Reply July 11, 2015 at 13:58

    Dear Sanu (koodikara).Very crisply done article touching all spots of this violent spreading of islam.I really wonder how this cancerous isis could be curtailed.The youth and some middle aged persons seem to volunteer.
    Well done Dr.Sanu.

  2. As opposed to the Wahabis have you herad of the fakabi tribes. they are 3 inches men in 6 inches grass wandering around enquiring” where the fuck are we , where the fuck are we”
    what are you thoughts on the latest move of the Saudis on oil disounts/supplies etc/
    best always ,
    Suren

  3. very informative about a very confusing turmoil in yemen well opined

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